Response to Gail Omvedt: Nirmalangshu Mukherjee


First of all I strongly object to the various insinuations posted in several comments. However, with due respect to a veteran activist, I think the older generation of left activists are by and large failing to come to terms with an unfamiliar form of protest in the IT-age. For them perhaps, Tahrir square looks full of promise at a distance from where all the finer dark spots get blurred; not so when it is happening in the neighbourhood.

The janlokpal campaign has three broad components: the core group with Anna in front, the bill itself, and the people. The Maoist campaign also has these components. There are serious problems with the first component in either campaign insofar as the condition of “democratic elections” are concerned. In the Maoist case, it is just an upper caste and largely upper class coterie of people thrust on the adivasis. The programme of proctracted war to establish “new democracy,” i.e., the second component, is also deeply flawed. Yet, the Maoist campaign is routinely advertised as a just campaign because it is supposed to be a people’s campaign driven by a people’s army. The current terminology is “bottom-up.” The reality of this proclamation is not the issue here, the structure of justification is. The Maoist campaign with its flawed first two components is justified because “people” have accepted and wanted them, contrary to fact as indicated. But the same commentators are terrified when the same structure is offered for the janlokpal bill. Or is it because Dandakaranya, likeTahrir Square, is safely remote while these “middle-class people” are dangerously close?

The first component of the janlokpal campaign is even more deeply flawed because, apart from its (inevitable) “top-down” character, it also lacks any history. It is purely a product of covert grouping almost conspiratorially formed and then announced to the world. (It quickly reminds us of the formation of the original CPI (ML) under another “messiah” Charu Mazumdar, as participants in that conspiracy themselves report). But the “undemocratic” IAC group is fairly benign since its members have little popular penetration and have no major connections with real power, especially imperial power. Kejriwal, for example, can only hope to be a member of one of the missions of the planning commission. Even Gladson is one such, deservedly.

As a matter of fact, is the Indian parliament democratically-elected with over 300 crorepatis and other forms of mafia clamouring to be the elected representatives of the people? Do we expect them to articulate and contribute significantly and fairly to the intricate deliberations required to legislate a Lokpal Bill?

The second component is also relatively benign since it prescribes a law aimed at preventing daily harrassment to vast sections of the population. It has to take the form of policing in any version and, thus, will have some authoritarian consequences. Even the domestic violence act, RTI, etc. have these consequences. But it is certainly not “draconian” and “anti-democratic.” Many countries have various forms of such a law without any perceptible change in the system, massive attacks on civil and privacy rights, etc. Most importantly, if the receiver-end can be effectively blocked, the giver-end is likely to dry up, as Prashant explained in one of his speeches. The MNCs would be at a loss about how to bribe. (I am dreaming of course; what’s life without etc.)

The third component of the janlokpal campaign is something the Maoists can only dream of and the “classical” left, such as Prabhat Patnaik, is finding difficult to come to terms with. The middle-classes have by now bloated and stratified beyond classical conception, and its effects have penetrated below. The unequal distribution of priviledges has endowed this vast structure with a certain political aggression that can veer between fascism and limited egalitarianism depending on how the aggression is chanelled. This structure is also immediately receptive to incoming information as it is less tied down to traditional authoritarian control. The IT, skillfully used by the IAC, has raised this reception exponentially to achieve massive mobilisation. This structure is not likely to submit itself to patient “study classes” under candle-light. Right now it is geared towards some degree of social justice as most members of this structure are victims (givers).

In any case this picture is incomplete. As reports are pouring in, sections of peasants, adivasis, organized workers, and the like are also attracted to the campaign from a variety of directions. Some of them are already there in Ramlila. Perhaps this is the most “dangerous” development though classically reassuring. It seems that much of this new-found energy is directed against the organised polity of the parliament. Just to cite one anecdote, on the 23rd evening, a youngman from Lucknow got on to the podium to declare that he had quit his job to join the campaign as his boss wouldn’t grant him seven days leave. He then announced that he used to be associated with the BJP, but when the party failed to directly take up the JanLokpal issue, he quit the party. The seventy thousand odd people roared in approval. I am sure “quiters” from Congress, CPM, RJD, BSP, DMK, etc. will also command similar approval. But the crowd also roared in approval when another person appealed to the naxalbhais to give up hatya and join the campaign. He pointed at the crowd to signal what an unarmed campaign of the people can achieve. No wonder Maoists are deeply worried.

Clearly, the movement, still in its infancy, has an immense potential to churn Indian political order thoroughly. The huge task is to see how and whether this churning can actually get the parliament back to the people without (much) violence to reclaim the absolute significance of the single vote. Anna & Co will be long gone by the time that happens. By focusing mostly on the first two largely benign components, sections of the left may be sitting on its historical responsibility.

7 thoughts on “Response to Gail Omvedt: Nirmalangshu Mukherjee”

  1. You are glossing over the actual bill by simply labeling it as benign. Large bureaucracies, by their nature, tend to get corrupt over time. The scale of the agency required to police the whole of the Indian govt. is huge. We are not talking about the principal Lokpals but all the officers and lower cadre they will hire to police over the whole govt. Such an agency having roughly the powers of police and civil courts with a mandated time constraint is a dangerous concentration of power and is more likely to compound the problem rather than solve it. It can work for big ticket corruptions like CWG or Spectrum scams, but the moment you want it to police the entire govt. the sheer scale of the institution brings the propensity towards more corruption.The only place where such law has “worked” is Singapore, which is a much much smaller country.

    That said, I have seen a lot of discussion on this forum about the nature of the Anna movement and whether left leaning people should join them or oppose them. What is absent is a discussion of concrete policy steps that the left favours to attack this problem. This should be a concern to the left, as abuse of govt. resources inevitably lead to decreasing the pie for the poor and marginalized.


  2. Quite so!! The left could still reflect on the historical blunders of not joining the 1942 quit India movement and treating Gandhi with disdain,often in intellectually naive terms,such as an agent of the bourgeoise class. While Hazare is no Gandhi,it is equally true that his cultural and symbolic style of politics so far has elicited only so much ridicule and contempt,but little understanding from the left intelligentsia!!(Prabhat Pattnaik’s article is a classic of that genre.) Short of doing that one is condemned to repeat history,while ‘our’discursive interventions,alas,seem to sink in the murmur of mere prose!


  3. what is your unnecessary obsession with Maoists here (or elsewhere)? just because arundhati roy has used a ill-explained analogy in her article in the hindu, you want to exaggerate further and make the most absurd comparisons between a movt for the passing of a bill and the movt with a professed vision of structural change (whether you agree with their means or not)?and i really cant see a ‘response’ to the concerns raised by gail omvedt here in her article. can you please change the title then?


    1. The entire nation, especially the left, should be “obsessed” with the Maoist issue since about 25000 armed adivasi children and youth (7000 guerrillas + 18000 militias approx.) are facing about 90,000 paramilitary forces excluding the redesigned 6500 SPOs/Koya commandos, and several lakhs have left their habitat. That is my personal anguish, but let us not get diverted.

      I have nothing more to add to the rest of your comment. Thanks.


      1. well, great concern, but how misdirected, i must add! so the SPO and koya commandos,the guerillas, the militias, the displacement, are all because of the crazy maoists. and if the maoists had not been there, central india would have been a paradise for the people and resources there, courtesy indian state and its trans-national allies?there would have been no displacement and no army there! just like it is a paradise for the other parts of the country were maoists are not there. oh wait, there is anna’s revolutionary movt in those parts to salvage them, ‘bottom up’! (thats how simplistic your narrative and your obsession repeatdely sounds, sir. not just simplistic it sounds vindictive and petty over the time) but considering what you have written in the past, i should not be surprised, and do not expect an explanation.


  4. Since last ten years as part of my sociological studies in india, I have met, interacted and have had relationship with any who fall under this constructed category of dalits. manual laboureres, prostitues, scavengers, auto drivers, butchers, cobblers etc. None of them know the term dalit, neither they know about ambekar and all the caste narratives that these political pundits talk about. Only these small time arm chair dalits agree on all these. The real ‘dalits’ as such are illeterate and know nothing of any thing from anna to ambedkar. This is a true fact.


  5. Dear Sumati,

    Did I say that the war is on because of the “crazy maoists” and otherwise things would have been fine? About the rest of my stuff, including the comments on Anna movement, you surely have the right to hold the views you have. I am grateful to you though for having read them, apparently.


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